The NFL has lost one of its most influential and colorful figures.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis has died at age 82. The news was announced Saturday morning on the team’s website. The team said he died at his home in Oakland on Saturday morning. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
”Al Davis’ passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary. He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Saturday. "The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke. He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.”
Davis’ career in football dates to 1950. He served as a coach, general manager and even commissioner (in the American Football League that merged with the NFL in 1970) before orchestrating a power play that would lead to his becoming the Raiders’ principal owner by 1976.
Under his ownership tenure, Oakland won three Super Bowl titles. Davis also holds the record for most Hall of Fame induction speeches given — nine for players and coaches who worked under him, including John Madden and the late Gene Upshaw. Davis was inducted into the Hall in 1992.
Davis helped revolutionized offense in the early 1960s by implementing an aggressive passing game he referred to as the “vertical game.” Davis’ other fabled mantra was “Just win, baby!” The Raiders did that for most of Davis’ tenure, posting 34 seasons of .500 or better in his 48 years with the franchise.
With his silver-and-black athletic suits, dark sunglasses and slicked-back hair, Davis didn’t usually dress like other NFL team owners. He was known as a maverick, and he proved it when he moved his franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles and back. Davis wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in and famously butted heads with former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about the league’s direction.
”Al was a fiery individualist, an important part of pro football — the AFL and NFL — for almost 50 years," Cincinnati Bengals owner and president Mike Brown said. "His teams had times of great success, and he was heavily involved both on and off the field. I admired the achievements the Raiders attained under Al.”
That Davis was one of the most important figures in NFL history was most evident during the 1980s when he fought in court, and won, for the right to move his team from Oakland to Los Angeles. Even after he moved them back to the Bay Area in 1995, he went to court, suing for $1.2 billion to establish that he still owned the rights to the LA market.
Davis also was a trailblazer. He hired the first black head coach of the modern era — Art Shell in 1988. He hired the first Latino coach, Tom Flores, and the first woman CEO, Amy Trask. And he was infallibly loyal to his players and officials: To be a Raider was to be a Raider for life.
”He was an icon, a legend, a pioneer. I’m honored that he chose to draft me," said Bengals linebacker Thomas Howard, Oakland’s second-round pick in 2006 who played there five years. "It was a great pleasure being a part of Raider Nation, part of all the great teams and players that put on that Silver and Black. You don’t know what it means to be a Raider until you are a Raider, and that was his team. He spoke to you not just as an owner but as a coach. He was very hands-on. You felt his presence, and he really cared for you and your family.”
Davis built a franchise with a hardcore fan following that remains strong today despite an eight-year streak without a playoff appearance. He also remained closely involved with the franchise despite failing health.
Raiders defensive end Jarvis Moss sent a Twitter message Tuesday night about a conversation he had with Davis that day.
“Just got a humbling phone call from Mr. Davis himself!” Moss wrote. “So much respect for what he represents to the game of football.”
Moss isn’t the only one who feels that way, as will be evidenced by the forthcoming myriad tributes in the wake of Davis’ death.
Born in Brockton, Mass., Davis grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High, a spawning ground in the two decades after World War II for a number of ambitious young people who became renowned in sports, business and entertainment. Davis was perhaps the second most famous, after Barbra Streisand.
”We had a reunion in Los Angeles and 500 people showed up, including Bah-bruh,” he once told an interviewer in that combination of southern drawl/Brooklynese that was often parodied among his acquaintances within the league and without.
A graduate of Syracuse University, he became an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts at age 24, and was an assistant at The Citadel and then Southern California before joining the Los Angeles Chargers of the new AFL in 1960. Only three years later he was hired by the Raiders in 1963 and became the youngest general manager-head coach in pro football history with a team he called ”the Raid-uhs.”
He was a good one, compiling a 23-16-3 record in three seasons with a franchise that had started its life 9-23.
Then he bought into the failing franchise, which played on a high school field adjacent to the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, and became managing general partner, a position he held until his death.
But as the many bright young coaches he hired — from Madden, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden to Lane Kiffin — found out, he remained the coach. He ran everything that happened on the sideline, often calling down with plays or sending emissaries to make substitutions he wanted.
In 1966, he became commissioner of the AFL.
But even before that, he had begun to break an unwritten truce between the young league and its established rivals, which fought over draft choices but did not go after established players.
And while the NFL’s New York Giants’ signing of Buffalo placekicker Pete Gogolak marked the first break in that rule, it was Davis who began to go after NFL stars, pursuing quarterbacks John Brodie and Roman Gabriel as he tried to establish AFL supremacy.
Davis’ war precipitated first talks of merger, although Davis opposed it. But led by Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, the AFL owners agreed that peace was best. A common draft was established, and the first Super Bowl was played after the 1966 season — Green Bay beat Kansas City, then went on to beat Davis’ Raiders the next season. By 1970, the leagues were fully merged and the league had the basic structure it retains until this day — with the NFL’s Rozelle as commissioner, not Davis, who wanted the job badly.
So he went back to the Raiders, running a team that won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons — the last one in Los Angeles, where the franchise moved in 1982 after protracted court fights. It was a battling bunch, filled with players such as John Matuszak, Mike Haynes and Lyle Alzado, stars who didn’t fill in elsewhere who combined with homegrown stars: Ken Stabler (another rebellious spirit), Upshaw, Shell, Jack Tatum, Willie Brown and dozens of others.
After lengthy lawsuits involving the move to Los Angeles, he went back to Oakland and, at one point in the early years of the century, was involved in suits in Northern and Southern California — the one seeking the Los Angeles rights and another suing Oakland for failing to deliver sellouts they promised in return for the team coming back.
”Personally, I was fond of him,” Brown said. ”He battled with the NFL, and a lot of us wished that had not been where things went, but under all that was a person I respected. It saddens me to hear that he is gone.”
But if owners and league executives branded Davis a renegade, friends and former players find him the epitome of loyalty.
When his wife, Carol, had a serious heart attack, he moved into her hospital room and lived there for more than a month. And when he heard that even a distant acquaintance was ill, he’d offer medical help without worrying about expense.
”Disease is the one thing — boy, I tell you, it’s tough to lick,” he said in 2008, talking about the leg ailments that had forced him to using a walker. ”It’s tough to lick those diseases. I don’t know why they can’t.”
A few years earlier, he said: ”I can control most things, but I don’t seem to be able to control death. Everybody seems to be going on me.”
As he aged, his teams declined.
The Raiders got to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, losing to Tampa Bay. But for a long period after that, they had the worst record in the NFL and, at one point, went through five coaches in six years.
Some of it was Davis’ refusal to stay away from the football operation — he would take a dislike to stars and order them benched.
The most glaring example was Marcus Allen, the Most Valuable Player in the 1984 Super Bowl, the last the Raiders won.
For reasons never made clear, Davis took a dislike to his star running back and ordered him benched for two seasons. Davis released him after the 1992 season, and Allen went to Kansas City.
Davis’ only comment: ”He was a cancer on the team.”
The small incorporated city of Irwindale, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, learned an expensive lesson about dealing with Davis. The city gave the Raiders $10 million to show its good faith in 1988, but environmental issues, financing problems and regional opposition scuttled plans to turn a gravel pit into a $115 million, 65,000-seat stadium. The deposit was nonrefundable, and Irwindale never got a penny back.
When Davis fired Mike Shanahan in 1988 after 20 games as head coach, he refused to pay the $300,000 he owed Shanahan. When he became coach of the Denver Broncos, Shanahan delighted most in beating the Raiders and Davis. And when Davis fired Kiffin ”for cause” in 2008, withholding the rest of his contract, the usually humorless Shanahan remarked:
”I was a little disappointed, to be honest with you. When you take a look at it, I was there 582 days. Lane Kiffin was there 616 days. So, what it really means is that Al Davis liked Lane more than he liked me. I really don’t think it’s fair. I won three more games, yet he got 34 more days of work. That just doesn’t seem right.”
But, for most of his life, few people laughed at Al Davis.
It is fitting that this year’s Raiders team is built in typical Raiders fashion with a bevy of speedsters on offense capable of delivering the deep-strike play Davis has always coveted, a physically imposing defensive line that can pressure the quarterback and an accomplished man-coverage cornerback, Stanford Routt.
Once a constant presence at practice, training camp and in the locker room, Davis was rarely seen in public beyond the bizarre spectacles to fire and hire coaches where he spent more time disparaging his former coach than praising his new one.
He did not appear at a single training camp practice this summer and missed a game in Buffalo last month, believed to be only the third game he missed in 49 seasons with the franchise. Davis did attend Oakland’s home game last week against New England.
Although he was no longer as public a figure, he was still integrally involved in the team from the draft to negotiating contracts to discussing strategy with his coaches. Head coach Hue Jackson has said Davis was unlike any other owner he had worked for in his ability to understand the ins and outs of the game.
”I’ve never had the opportunity to sit and talk football, the X’s and O’s and what it takes to win in this league consistently on a consistent basis, and there’s nothing like working for Coach Davis,” Jackson said.
Davis is survived by Carol and their son, Mark, who Davis has said would run the team after his death. The team confirmed Saturday night that the family would retain ownership, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.